Thursday, June 27, 2002

More environmental musings Razib! I am so proud. I tried to respond to you in the "comments" section, only to get this message:

"Sorry, there is a 2500 character limit to comments. Your comment was 2960 characters. Please shorten it to 2500 or less."

Let it never be said again that I'm a lazy poster. Anyway, here are the aforementioned 2960 characters: Fair enough -- Wilson wasn't trotting out conservationist books back when we were 8. Really, he only started last year. If you're willing to give enviro books a belated second chance, I'd recommend "The Future of Life" despite its pompous title -- at least it's a more accurate name than "The Population Bomb." The sad thing about Ehrlich is that yes, he does appeal to 8-year-old kids and those many older folks who like to read on that level. He's a highly successful sensationalist. (I think his follow-up to "The Population Bomb" was "The Population Explosion". It's a "Die Hard" series waiting to be made.) Sure, he's a bona-fide scientist as well. But his actual scientific work isn't what he's famous for (the ghost of S. J. Gould enters the room) -- as opposed to Wilson, who has sterling credentials in just about every field he's entered -- and any "scientific" predictions Ehrlich has made have clearly been shortsighted. I hate to say "disproven," but, well, I just did. Anyway. I don't think it's fair to say "Ehrlich's predictions circa 1970 haven't come true, therefore the environmental movement is all wrong," because the environmental movement is far more diverse than the legions of Ehrlich disciples would like to think. (I could keep bashing Ehrlich, but so many before me have done it already. Specifically P. J. O'Rourke; his comments on "The Population Bomb" in "All the Trouble in the World" are priceless.) I haven't gotten around to reading Lomberg yet. I have, however, heard Wilson respond to Lomberg's challenge to his fragmentation hypothesis. Unfortunately, I can't remember how exactly he responded. But I do think it involved the use of phrases like "irresponsible use of data" and "superficial examination." Big cuddlies in their natural habitat: You have a point. But most of the efforts to save the big cuddlies, I think, are now focusing on breeding programs instead because trying to save the habitats just ain't working. (Lemurs, pandas, etc.) Don't get me started on the philosophical implications of breeding programs -- I have a book proposal on this tucked away in the "future" folder on my desktop. Aquaculture is an interesting idea, but I think you're right -- it's going to be a long time before it replaces the big ships. There's a powerful lobby to fight it. Also, it won't make for great movies: "The Perfect Farm" just doesn't have the same ring. (Certainly doesn't sound as Hollywood-ready as "The Population Bomb"!) Still, I do agree with you that it's probably the only viable long-term solution. None of the other anti-overfishing policies -- catch checks, extended rights over waters, no-fishing zones -- seem to work. Godless responds: I want to begin by saying that I think Wilson is a great scientist and that he will be remembered kindly by history for his work on sociobiology. However, I think his comments on Lomborg's work are reprehensible. To wit:

My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval. The question is: How much load should be tolerated before a response is necessary? Lomborg is evidently over the threshold.

Come now. Lomborg is hardly a crank. As a statistician, he is likewise far from an "academic parasite". After all, statisticians make their living by analyzing the data that others have endeavoured to gather. Should we believe that the academic enterprise would be better off without dissent or internal criticism? Constructive, evidence based criticism is the foundation of the peer review system, and it is certainly no waste of time to deal carefully with calm arguments such as those advanced by Lomborg. However, careful analysis does not seem to be the method of choice of most of Lomborg's critics. Look at the jaw-droppingly ideological statements of the "pro-environment" crew here and then examine Lomborg's measured response. In any debate, one can often (but not always) tell which side is wrong by measuring the respective venom-to-evidence ratios. I submit that Wilson's side comes up short in this assessment. Indeed, the whole tone of the campaign against Lomborg strikes me as a reprise of the hysterical attacks on the Bell Curve. Finally, lest I be accused of damning Wilson's argument solely by the company he keeps, let me summarize it and then rebut it. Responding to Lomborg's assertion that extinction rates are trumpeted as being much higher than they actually are, Wilson says that:

Lomborg's estimate of extinction rates is at odds with the vast majority of respected scholarship on extinction. His estimate, "0.7 percent over the next 50 years" -- or 0.014 percent per year -- is an order of magnitude smaller than the most conservative species extinction rates by authorities in the field. Here is my brief response to the analysis of extinction rates in The Skeptical Environmentalist. ... At current levels of habitat destruction, extinction rates are destined to rise, and -- I believe every researcher would agree -- dramatically so. Consider that at an area-species exponent of 0.27 (a typical middle level), half the species are extinguished or committed to extinction by a 90 percent reduction in habitat area. But only another 10 percent reduction (to zero habitat) eliminates the rest of the species locally, and globally for species endemic to the patch. Now consider that some 35 percent of Earth's land vertebrates and 44 percent of its plant species are limited to 1.4 percent of its land surface, the 25 widely recognized "hotspots," which contain about the land mass of Alaska and Texas put together. Consider, too, that the forests and other habitats in these remaining areas have been reduced to 10 percent of their prehuman levels (see, for example, Norman Myers et al., Nature 403, 2000), and most are at immediate risk of disappearing. Finally, consider that species extinction is increasingly enhanced by pollution, climate change, and the growing flood of invasive species -- hence the foregoing estimates of extinctions based on habitat reduction are, sadly, minimal and modest.

Wilson feels that Lomborg has underestimated the extinction rate by an order of magnitude. Fine. Let's say that he has, though his "0.014% per year" statistic came from UN data. The resulting stat of ".1% per year" is ten times higher, but even if we assume it to be constant for the next 50 years we'll see the extinction of 4.9% of the earth's species. (Check my math here: (1- .00014)^50 = .993, and (1 - .001)^50 = .951). Not insubstantial, but hardly earth shattering. However, Wilson feels that this extinction rate is not going to remain constant at ".1%" . He thinks it's going to jump through the roof because we're going to finish clearcutting the forests in which much of Earth's biodiversity resides. I don't know whether this is true or not, and even if it is I doubt that there will be fewer known species in 2050 than now. In fact, I would take up a doubting Thomas at on this very topic. I lean towards skepticism for several reasons: 1) We haven't discovered most of the species on the planet. Do microorganisms count? Do the inhabitants of the oceans count? If so, the extinction rate will probably be dwarfed by the discovery rate. And this discovery rate will be fueled by advances in technology that - in part - require the exploitation of natural resources. 2) To assume that we will accelerate or maintain our polluting/killing/etc. ways over the next 50 years is probably not a fair assumption. Who knows what sorts of technological advances we'll make in that time period? 3) Life is resilient and infinitely resourceful. It seems clear to me that the selection pressures applied by humans will result in a (possibly smaller) pool of adapted organisms that we won't have to worry about killing by accident. Then the problem will be to kill them on purpose... 4) Wilson's tendency to paint man as evil for destroying life on a large scale seems to me to be ahistorical. Was the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs evil? The mass extinction did, after all, make way for the mammals. Now, this skepticism must be balanced by the knowledge that it would indeed be a blow to science if a substantial portion of earth's biodiversity was to be extinguished. Many medicines and scientific discoveries would likely come out of careful examination of the biodiversity of the rainforests. But we need to always weigh the benefits of keeping the forests around against the opportunity cost of foregoing their other natural resources. After all, the only real justification for keeping organisms from extinction is that they will through their existence serve the purpose of man.

Principles of Population Genetics
Genetics of Populations
Molecular Evolution
Quantitative Genetics
Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics
Evolutionary Genetics
Molecular Markers, Natural History, and Evolution
The Genetics of Human Populations
Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits
Epistasis and Evolutionary Process
Evolutionary Human Genetics
Mathematical Models in Biology
Evolutionary Genetics: Case Studies and Concepts
Narrow Roads of Gene Land 1
Narrow Roads of Gene Land 2
Narrow Roads of Gene Land 3
Statistical Methods in Molecular Evolution
The History and Geography of Human Genes
Population Genetics and Microevolutionary Theory
Population Genetics, Molecular Evolution, and the Neutral Theory
Genetical Theory of Natural Selection
Evolution and the Genetics of Populations
Genetics and Origins of Species
Tempo and Mode in Evolution
Causes of Evolution
The Great Human Diasporas
Bones, Stones and Molecules
Natural Selection and Social Theory
Journey of Man
Mapping Human History
The Seven Daughters of Eve
Evolution for Everyone
Why Sex Matters
Mother Nature
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
R.A. Fisher, the Life of a Scientist
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology
Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics
A Reason for Everything
The Ancestor's Tale
Dragon Bone Hill
Endless Forms Most Beautiful
The Selfish Gene
Adaptation and Natural Selection
Nature via Nurture
The Symbolic Species
The Imitation Factor
The Red Queen
Out of Thin Air
Evolutionary Dynamics
The Origin of Species
The Descent of Man
Age of Abundance
The Darwin Wars
The Evolutionists
The Creationists
Of Moths and Men
The Language Instinct
How We Decide
Predictably Irrational
The Black Swan
Fooled By Randomness
Descartes' Baby
Religion Explained
In Gods We Trust
Darwin's Cathedral
A Theory of Religion
The Meme Machine
Synaptic Self
The Mating Mind
A Separate Creation
The Number Sense
The 10,000 Year Explosion
The Math Gene
Explaining Culture
Origin and Evolution of Cultures
Dawn of Human Culture
The Origins of Virtue
Prehistory of the Mind
The Nurture Assumption
The Moral Animal
Born That Way
No Two Alike
Survival of the Prettiest
The Blank Slate
The g Factor
The Origin Of The Mind
Unto Others
Defenders of the Truth
The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition
Before the Dawn
Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era
The Essential Difference
Geography of Thought
The Classical World
The Fall of the Roman Empire
The Fall of Rome
History of Rome
How Rome Fell
The Making of a Christian Aristoracy
The Rise of Western Christendom
Keepers of the Keys of Heaven
A History of the Byzantine State and Society
Europe After Rome
The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity
The Barbarian Conversion
A History of Christianity
God's War
Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
The Sacred Chain
Divided by the Faith
The Reformation
Pursuit of Glory
Albion's Seed
From Plato to Nato
China: A New History
China in World History
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Children of the Revolution
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World
The Great Arab Conquests
After Tamerlane
A History of Iran
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language
A World History
Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Human Web
Plagues and Peoples
A Concise Economic History of the World
Power and Plenty
A Splendid Exchange
Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD
Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
A Farewell to Alms
The Ascent of Money
The Great Divergence
Clash of Extremes
War and Peace and War
Historical Dynamics
The Age of Lincoln
The Great Upheaval
What Hath God Wrought
Freedom Just Around the Corner
Throes of Democracy
Grand New Party
A Beautiful Math
When Genius Failed
Catholicism and Freedom
American Judaism

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